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CHS appeals for more volunteers as Helpline continues to receive high number of distress calls
Following an unprecedented increase in suicide calls in 2021, the CHS - Community Help Service urgently needs more volunteers for its 24/7 English-language helpline.
The non-profit organisation operates the free helpline service from its mental health services centre in Ixelles.
“We desperately need more volunteers,” says one of the voluntary team who represents the body to CHS’s board of directors. For the past six months, the service has been operating with only 15 people instead of the preferred contingent of around 30.
She explains: “We managed to maintain 95% coverage of the 24/7 operation. Our volunteers took more than a fair share of shifts just to make sure our callers can get through to a live person.”
“Given the fact that we saw an unprecedented increase in suicide calls in the last year, it really speaks to our dedication to serving the community,” adds the volunteer, who like all the team, prefers to remain anonymous.
Calls to the CHS helpline are logged to help evaluate the service. The peak time for calls is around 13.00, 19.00 and 22.00, and the longest ones are received between midnight and 4.00. “Such calls tend to be from people in significant distress, which is why we tend to use more experienced volunteers to take these night shifts,” she says.
The pandemic increased isolation and domestic abuse as well as exacerbating existing issues for vulnerable people. Despite the relaxation of confinement measures, the number of suicide calls continues to be high.
If people are calling during the night, it’s often because they have no one else to turn to, she says. “They require a sympathetic and listening ear.”
More difficult situations can be emotionally tough and volunteers support each other, benefitting from extensive training that includes a partnership with the Samaritans.
Some 20% of calls originate from abroad. “This was a real eye-opener for many of us and demonstrates the global reach that the CHS enjoys,” she says. Another 30% are by regular callers who rely on the service as a “lifeline”.
What’s required of a helpline volunteer?
While the CHS is reevaluating the hours required by its dedicated team, the current commitment for a helpline volunteer is 15 hours every fortnight, including one weekend shift per month.
Although the helpline is an English-language service, volunteers don’t need to be native speakers themselves. All ages are welcome with the present team ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s, including active people and retired.
“What we have in common is taking an interest in people, being empathetic and reliable and committed and sensitive and good listeners,” she says. Some have a background in psychology, others have gained experience through the “school of life”.
Due to the training involved, it’s preferred that volunteers are staying at least 18 months to two years in Belgium. “It’s a great training, very structured so everyone’s on the same page.” The CHS’s mental health service also provides support and the training includes a mentoring programme.
Several volunteers recently provided testimonials about their experience answering calls at the helpline
“While often challenging, it is very satisfying to have a conversation with someone in a lot of distress and find you have helped them even if it is just to get through another day. Also, the fellow volunteers are a great bunch of people and it’s a privilege to be part of such a group.”
“Being a volunteer is to open the mind and the heart, be in touch with human suffering, any form it can take. It helps me stay open and flexible, connected.”
“Knowing that I am in a way a shoulder to cry on for some people who are lonely, isolated or overburdened with life in general. The fact that I am helping a fellow human being at a vulnerable moment. That I am paying it forward for all the help and support I got in my life in difficult moments from kind people.”
When asked about cherished moments, volunteers contributed the following responses
“One that sticks with me is when in the middle of the night a caller wrote a poem to her unborn child and dedicated it to me. After talking with her for about an hour and a half she called back two hours later to read the poem to me. It was amazing.”
“During Covid I had quite a few calls where I could clearly experience the added value of a helpline for expats, who were away from family and going through some traumatic experiences.”